The Senate just guaranteed that President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial will be the first in US history that won’t have witnesses.
In a 51-49 vote, senators voted Friday against considering more witnesses and documents as part of the impeachment proceedings, effectively clearing the path for the president’s acquittal. Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (UT) and Susan Collins (ME) joined with the 47-member Democratic caucus to support additional testimony, while other closely watched swing senators Lamar Alexander (TN) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) stuck with the Republican conference.
Alexander offered a striking rationale for his vote: In a statement he shared on Thursday, he emphasized that he believed the charge that the president demanded a quid pro quo of Ukraine was true. Even so, he concluded that Trump’s actions didn’t reach the level of an impeachable offense.
“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation,” Alexander wrote.
The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did. 8/15— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) January 31, 2020
Murkowski announced her decision in a sharply worded statement that also signaled her desire to avoid a tie vote. She emphasized that it would not be possible to hold a “fair trial” in the Senate, while also dinging the House for purportedly sending articles that are “rushed and flawed.”
“I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed,” she said.
While there’s strong public support for calling more witnesses — including from 49 percent of Republican voters, according to a CNN poll — Republicans remain wary of breaking with the president. Although some have cited the legal complications around the witness issue, and how sorting it out could extend the trial, the broader reason for opposing witnesses has always been driven by a reluctance to defy Trump.
The vote on witnesses was one of the last major obstacles for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been eyeing a swift acquittal. The Senate is now poised to vote on the two articles of impeachment next Wednesday.
The fight over witnesses, briefly explained
The debate over calling more witnesses has been an ongoing undercurrent of the impeachment trial. House Democrats had delayed sending over the articles of impeachment because they weren’t sure how the Senate would treat the witness issue, and Democrats wound up forcing a series of votes on the topic from the get-go.
This past week, interest in witnesses, particularly Bolton, seemed like it was growing. At one point, Romney even posited that it was “increasingly likely” there would be enough Senate Republican votes to support this motion.
Democrats have pushed for witness testimony from individuals with firsthand knowledge about Trump’s condition of Ukraine aid on political investigations, because they argue that these people could provide details about his wrongdoing and fill in gaps in the evidence. Republicans had said that there was no one who had been told directly by Trump about the alleged quid pro quo, an assertion that Bolton’s argument rebuts.
One of Trump’s defense attorneys, Alan Dershowitz, however, sought to neutralize these calls by arguing that further confirmation of this quid pro quo, which Bolton was expected to provide, simply wouldn’t matter. “Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense,” he said in his remarks.
For some lawmakers, this argument may have offered just enough cover to vote against witnesses.
The trial will go until next week
In their perfect world, Republicans would have voted on Trump’s acquittal as early as Friday since they’d like to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
Democrats, however, had threatened to use procedural tactics, including several amendments to a resolution laying out next steps, to extend the length of the trial.
By proposing amendments on Friday, Democrats were able to force votes on different subjects in the same way they did last week, when they pushed every senator to vote on subpoenas for documents from the White House and other government agencies. At the time, those votes kept senators in the chamber until almost 2 am.
As a compromise between the two parties, the trial will be on a break this weekend, and lawmakers will return for final closing arguments on Monday.
After the prosecution and defense close out their cases, Senators will have an opportunity to make floor speeches about the trial on Tuesday, with a final vote on Trump’s conviction or acquittal scheduled for Wednesday after the State of the Union has already taken place.